Battle of the brackets

The Plan of Implementation is a list of vague expressions

Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015 | 11:25:17 AM

Battle of the brackets

-- (Credit: Clifford Polycarp / CSE)It took 9,000 delegates almost 225 hours of strategising, negotiating and arguing over the language to reach an agreement on the 150 clauses of the final Plan of Implementation. After the Bali preparatory meeting, the un proudly claimed that 75 per cent of the text had been agreed upon, and only 25 per cent remained bracketed (controversial text in negotiating documents remains bracketed until the final language is agreed upon by all governments). By the end of the first week of wssd, less than five per cent was still bracketed. The problem with this method of notching progress, of course, is that the removal of brackets often signifies that the language of the text has been twisted beyond recognition, to eventually mean nothing. At the end of the two weeks in the convention centre, all the brackets had been removed, but there was little to show for the success of the meeting. Looking for firm action points in the Plan of Implementation amounts to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Only the most optimistic non-governmental, non-intergovernmental participants sought consolation in the fact that at least status quo was maintained, and the summit did not take a step backwards by reopening agreements reached at Rio, Monterrey and Doha.

If developing countries can claim any victories, it would be in the agreement to negotiate a global instrument to ensure 'benefit sharing' -- where local communities get a share of the benefits if their biodiversity or traditional knowledge is used to develop a commercial product -- within the framework the Convention of Biological Diversity (cbd). Such an agreement, if given teeth, would go a long way in protecting the rights of the poor. But many countries at the wssd strongly opposed making any such instrument legally binding, so it is unlikely that the instrument will be very effective. The us has already said that if such an instrument is legally binding, it will have implications on the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (trips) agreement, which does not recognise the rights of communities to their knowledge.

poverty eradication: Before they gathered to Johannesburg, governments had already agreed to halve the number of the world's poor whose income is below a dollar a day by the year 2015. There was little clarity on exactly how this would come about, but a G77 proposal to set up a World Solidarity Fund was agreed. The un General Assembly will now decide the modalities. However, the text makes it very clear that any contributions for this fund will be voluntary. In addition to governments, individuals and the private sector are invited to contribute.

Unfortunately, the fund is a prime example of the lack of preparedness and foresight by the G77. The Centre for Science and Environment had proposed such a fund in the run up to the Rio Summit in 1992, but made it clear that it should not depend on voluntary donations, but on a global system of taxation. A democratic panel should govern it with equal representation from the North and South, and the funds should be used to promote sustainable livelihoods among local communities. The G77, however, proposed the fund without a well-thought out proposal on how exactly it will be used to fight poverty. The proposal was received with some amount of scepticism -- the eu, for instance, had reservations, saying that the stated objective 'poverty eradication' was too vague, and they need to meet their existing oda commitments before establishing a new fund. So although the fund has been agreed to, it is unlikely to have contributions, and it will become nothing more than yet another forum for poor nations to go begging in years to come.

To fight poverty eradication, governments also agreed to improve access of indigenous people to economic activities, and recognise their dependence on renewable resources and ecosystems, including sustainable harvesting -- a decision that is likely to have repercussions on the International Whaling Commission, where sustainable harvesting of whales by communities is an controversial issue.

trade: Developing countries had hoped that at the wssd, industrialised countries would commit to phasing out trade distorting subsides in their countries, and also to provide exports from poor countries better market access. These two measures would go a long way in ensuring that poor countries have a level playing field in international trade, and become self-reliant. It has been constantly pointed out that if Northern countries simply stop subsidising their farmers (these subsidies amount to as much as us $1 billion a day), and allow fair competition for agricultural produce from developing countries in world markets, the total benefit to poor countries would be far more than the flow of official development assistance from the North.

However, wssd turned out to be a huge disappointment in this respect, as the eu (mostly France) and the us resisted any commitment to reduce their agricultural subsidies and open their markets to goods from developing countries. The best that the developed countries could agree was to reiterate the vague promise they made in Doha, in November 2001. The section on agriculture in the Ministerial Declaration from Doha, agreed that countries:

" ...commit (themselves) to comprehensive negotiations aimed at: substantial improvements in market access; reductions of, with a view to phasing out, all forms of export subsidies; and substantial reductions in trade distorting domestic support."

On the issue of providing market access to non-agricultural exports from developing countries, the Doha statement agreed:

" negotiations which shall aim, by modalities to be agreed, to reduce or as appropriate eliminate tariffs, including the reduction or elimination of tariff peaks, high tariffs, and tariff escalation, as well as non-tariff barriers, in particular on products of export interests to developing countries."

The relationship between the rules of the World Trade Organisation (wto) and multilateral environmental agreements was another controversial area at the wssd. This has been a sticky issue ever since the Uruguay Round, with the trade and environment regimes often contradicting each other. Several attempts have been made to clarify this relationship in the past, but without success. wssd was no exception in this regard. At one point in the negotiations, there was a genuine fear that all environment agreements would have to be made 'consistent with wto rights and obligations', thus giving the trade body more power. After protracted negotiations, however, it was only decided that governments 'enhance the mutual supportiveness of trade, environment and development' -- leaving existing controversies unresolved.

finance: No additional funds were committed at wssd. The only concession that developing countries got was that the un's Economic and Social Council (ecosoc) would follow up on both, the wssd and the outcomes of the Monterrey conference on Finance for Sustainable Development. The text on finance also reflects the attempt to shift focus from aid to foreign direct investment (fdi), and contains promises to "facilitate greater flows" to developing countries. However, to get this fdi, developing countries will have to "create the necessary domestic and international conditions".

rio principles: Developing countries succeeded in keeping the references to the 'common but differentiated responsibilities' of rich and poor countries in the text, but the us announced in the closing plenary that this principle does not infer any obligations under international law. It was agreed to refer to a 'precautionary approach' instead of a 'precautionary principle'.

water and sanitation: The proposed deadline to halve the proportion of people without safe drinking water and adequate sanitation by 2015 resulted in a protracted and torturous negotiation that started a day before the summit, and ended more than a week later. The main opposition came from the Japan, usa, Australia and New Zealand. The us did not want to go beyond the targets agreed to in the Millennium Development Goals (mdg), which include a target to halve the number of people with no access to safe drinking water, but no target for improved sanitation.

natural resources: The earlier text called on countries to achieve a significant reduction in biodiversity loss by 2010. The final agreement does not include the 2010 deadline -- countries agreed to 'achieve a significant reduction in the current rate of loss of biodiversity', provided new and additional financial and technical resources were made available. After considerable difficulty, the us agreed to allow a roundabout reference to the Kyoto Protocol.

fisheries: The fact at the us agreed to a deadline to 'maintain or restore stocks' to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield with the aim of achieving these goals for depleted stocks on a urgent basis and where possible not later than 2015 was touted as a major success, since getting the us to agree to any deadline had been so difficult. However, the fact that no criterion to measure 'sustainable yield' is specified in the plan, making it easy for countries to escape the targets.

sustainable production and consumption: The text on promoting sustainable production and consumption is weak, and puts very little pressure on developed countries to change their environmentally harmful lifestyles. The eu had proposed a 10-year work programme for all countries to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production. Opposition from G77 and Japan, usa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand diluted this proposal, and countries now merely have to 'encourage and promote the development' of 10-year 'framework of programmes' towards sustainable consumption and production. Among other things, this section of the plan calls on countries to encourage cleaner production and eco-efficiency, promote the internalisation of environmental costs, enhance corporate environmental and social responsibility; and aim to have a global system of classification and labeling of chemicals in place by 2008.

renewable energy: No definite targets for renewable energy were agreed to at the Summit, and it was only agreed to phase out harmful energy subsidies 'where appropriate'. Although the target to increase the share of renewable energy resources to at least 15 per cent of the total primary energy supply by 2010 was supported Europe, it was opposed by the us, and by some members of the G77. The us stand owes much to President George Bush's now infamous axis with the oil companies. The G77, meanwhile, was heavily divided on the issue. Countries belonging to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (opec) opposed any such targets, and many countries within the G77 (such as India) felt they should support the opec. But the small island states within the G77, which stand to lose a lot from climate change, and Brazil were strongly in favour of renewable energy targets. India claimed to be against such targets not only as a show of support for opec, but also because they felt that any targets they take on in the wssd forum could be misconstrued as India taking on commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under the un Framework Convention on Climate Change. The logic of this argument was not very clear -- particularly since India has already set a national target -- 10 per cent of the additional energy that the country will produce by 2012 will be from renewable sources. India finally agreed on targets but only with the clarification that makes nuclear energy and large hydro projects were included in the 'renewable' package.

governance: Any expectations that it would streamline the global institutions that deal with sustainable development, or define their responsibilities clearly, were dashed early on in the wssd process when it became clear that negotiators did not want drastic changes in the existing system. Instead, in the discussions on governance, industrialised country governments focused on national governance, and were reluctant to talk about global governance. Negotiations were reduced to a ping-pong, where developing countries demanded good global governance every time industrialised countries raised the issue of good national governance. As expected, the final compromise signifies little, but was adopted after South African environment minister Valli Moosa presented it to ministers on a 'take it or leave it' basis. It calls on international financial institutions to incorporate sustainable development policies in their work "within their mandates".

health: The section on health aims at developing programmes to reduce by two-thirds infant and child mortality rates by 2015, and prioritise the impact of air pollution on women and children for developing countries. Governments committed to reduce the prevalence of hiv in men and women aged 15 to 24 by 25 per cent in affected countries by 2005, and globally by 2010.

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